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Indiana Supreme Court Reverses Defendant’s DUI Conviction Because of No Valid Exception for Warrantless Stop

Defendant Mary Osborne was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated in a manner that endangers a person and operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08. Before trial, Osborne filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the warrantless traffic stop preceding her arrest was constitutionally invalid. The trial court denied her motion. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the police exceeded their Fourth Amendment authority in stopping Osborne’s car out of an alleged concern for her medical state.

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On interlocutory appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals’ opinion and reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, holding that the government failed to show that the stop was justified by an exception to the warrant requirement.

On the night of the incident, a Fishers, Indiana gas station clerk called the police to report that a woman was “stuck underneath her vehicle in the parking lot.” The clerk described the vehicle as a “black passenger car, possibly a BMW,” and provided a license plate number. Officer Arnold was participating in an OWI investigation about a mile and a half away when he received the report. By the time he arrived, dispatch had informed him that the woman had “gotten herself out from under the vehicle and was leaving.” As he pulled in, Officer Arnold saw Osborne’s black BMW pulling out from the station. He followed her but did not witness any driving infractions or criminal conduct. Nevertheless, Officer Arnold initiated a traffic stop based on the dispatch report, fearing for her well-being: “I was concerned that [the driver] potentially could have been seriously injured, broken bones or anything. Or something was wrong with them that started this whole thing to begin with because it’s not normal behavior.”

After pulling over Osborne, Officer Arnold approached her driver’s side door, shone his flashlight, and observed no signs of a physical injury. When Officer Arnold asked if she was hurt, Osborne indicated that she was fine and declined his offer of medical care. Osborne also explained why she got stuck. Her car has a manual transmission, and she had neglected to engage her parking brake, causing it to roll backwards as she exited. During this exchange, Officer Arnold detected the odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle and observed several signs of impairment, such as her watery, red eyes and slurred speech. Officer Arnold asked Osborne if she had been drinking, and she said she had had a beer an hour earlier. Osborne then failed several field sobriety tests. A portable breathalyzer indicated her blood alcohol level was 0.12.

The Indiana Supreme Court explained that Officer Arnold responded to a report that a woman was trapped under her car, which undoubtedly could give rise to a reasonable concern that emergency medical assistance was needed, prompting further investigation. However, the actual facts he subsequently confronted did not objectively support that concern. Officer Arnold learned that Osborne had freed herself prior to his arrival at the gas station, Osborne operated her vehicle normally, and Officer Arnold witnessed no traffic infractions or criminal conduct. While the evidence indicated a possibly unsafe situation, such evidence did not establish an exigency sufficient to justify the warrantless intrusion of stopping Osborne’s car.

In reversing, the Indiana Supreme Court explained that it did not believe that Officer Arnold’s assertion that he feared for Osborne’s medical state was merely a pretext to conduct an investigatory stop. However, Osborne’s subjective intent was not decisive. “[T]he test is objective, and the government must establish that the circumstances as they appear[ed] at the moment of [the stop] would lead a reasonable, experienced law enforcement officer to believe that someone inside the [vehicle] required immediate assistance.”

And in a close case on these unique facts, the state high court explained, it was compelled to err on the side of protecting the privacy rights of citizens against intrusion by the State. Accordingly, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the State failed to carry its burden of showing that an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement justified the stop. Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of Osborne’s motion to suppress and remanded for further proceedings.

If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us toll-free at 1-800-829-8513.

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